Biggest tax hike in history! Destruction of the way of life in Waterloo! A plague on your life and your pocketbook! If you believe some, the Waterloo City Council is intent upon dragging every citizen through the dirt and muck all the way to the bank. We are heartless highway bandits who seek to prey upon you when you’re most vulnerable.
That sounds truly awful. It’s also completely untrue. It’s a series of straw man arguments meant to obfuscate and scare rather than to explain and reassure. And in this time of uncertainty we all need some reassurance and explanation from our elected officials.
On March 19, the Waterloo City Council voted 5-2 to approve a budget. This budget was not filled with trifles and trinkets. It keeps the lights on, staff paid, and services running. After hours of meetings the majority of the council approved a budget that included a few positions that were needed, but did not approve new firefighters or mechanics. Most of the increases in the budget went toward insurance, necessary software updates, more library materials that we desperately need, and fair pay increases that were negotiated with employees. Yes, we did use more from the general fund, to keep taxes down more during a dangerous global pandemic. Those are the facts plain and simple.
One councilmember suggested we cut taxes below the $17.55 amount for FY2020. I asked the chief financial officer what it would take to cut taxes. Her answer: several millions of dollars. I asked the logical next question: Is there a way to do that without cutting into police and fire? The answer, no. This whole exchange was recorded on March 16 and can be viewed by the public online.
I believe it’s dangerous during these times to cut emergency personnel. That’s my opinion, but the facts are clear. Cutting taxes would mean fewer EMTs, it would mean fewer firefighters, and it would mean fewer police officers. Of course, cutting taxes sounds great as a political slogan. But eventually sloganeering must end and governing must begin. I could not in good faith cut emergency personnel in normal times, much less the situation we find ourselves in now.
Leadership is difficult and often more of an art than a science. We know leadership when we see it. It’s banding together in order to do what is best for our community. I campaigned on being a team player, and I asked the council to play like a team on the budget. Some heeded those words, and we did what we felt was best for the city we all love. Some didn’t, and that is their prerogative. These are difficult times and we need to work together to help everyone, especially the most vulnerable. That is why the city continues to work with the Small Business Administration and the Iowa Economic Development Authority to provide support for small businesses. That’s why we have worked together to develop plans to keep you safe, keep essential city services running, and be stewards of our community.
We also know what leadership is not. Leadership is not pitting one group of people against another because of where their paycheck comes from. I know a lot of really amazing people — teachers, firefighters, EMTs, cops, doctors, nurses, professors, mechanics, garbage truck drivers — who get a government check. And I know lots of people who are equally amazing — store clerks, insurance salespeople, lawn care workers, small business owners, fast food workers — who get checks from the private sector. It staggers me that in a time when we should be lifting each other up, some are cutting us down. Dividing us between makers and takers. I’m not interested in that game. It’s not leadership, and it’s not right.
Budgets are ultimately moral documents about how a city ought to be governed and what expenses we need to ensure that governance. That means knowing where to trim and where to invest in services. It means weighing staffing needs and how best to be good stewards of the public purse. It requires thoughtful, responsible, and fact-based consideration. It requires leaders who can strike a balance rather than a political pose. This budget does that.
Jonathan Grieder is Waterloo City Councilor Ward 2.
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